Laura Leigh Morris
Ethan pushes his child-sized cart through the store. When I put a bag of onions in my cart, he grabs one for his own. A bunch of bananas in mine becomes a single banana in his. I split up the corn—a pile in mine, an ear in his. Retirees beam at him as we pass, a few saying, “Precious,” or “Darling.” Other mothers smile at him, while I admire their preschoolers with their own carts or their infants gumming filthy handles in the moms’ carts.
When we get to the bakery, I hand Ethan a dinner roll, except he isn’t there. His cart is abandoned, and he holds a plastic tray of cookies precariously aloft.
“No, no, no,” I say, all sing-song, and take the tray from his grip. It holds sugar cookies with mountains of blue and pink frosting, the kind that stains your kid’s face and makes him run in circles for an hour before collapsing in a pile of tears and snot. He starts to sniffle, and I put the roll in his hand.
“No want,” he says and launches the roll across the floor.
I squat in front of him, grasp his hands in mine, say, “We don’t throw. No throw.”
His face crumples, and he melts to the floor, tantrum forthcoming. I stand, waiting. He will scream for the cookies, and I will ignore him. Eventually, he’ll realize I’m ignoring him and stand up, ready to resume our journey.
I will receive no exasperated sighs from the people around me. No one will comment loudly that the floor is dirty, that I shouldn’t let him lie on it. It is Monday morning, and the store is full of stay-at-home moms and retirees who’ve seen the same behavior in their own kids. Everyone knows the routine.
Ethan pauses and looks up at me. I look away. He resumes screaming. I sigh, look at my phone. He begins to thrash, kicks a bag of buns off a shelf. It slides across the floor. I kneel, grab his foot, say, “We don’t kick.” He screams, pulls his foot free, kicks me in the kneecap. It hurts bad enough to bring tears to my eyes. “And we don’t hurt mommy.” I gather his thrashing body, pin his arms against his torso, hold him close.
There is also an unwritten rule of stores: when a kid’s tantrum gets too wild, you leave. Just up and go. Don’t worry about what’s in your cart, whether you have milk at home, if the popsicles will melt. You bundle your kid in your arms, look straight ahead, and walk out the door. They scream all the way home, and you let them. You will not win.
Except as I exit the bakery section, Ethan pulls free of my arms and makes a break for it. He runs back to the tray of cookies, rips the top off, and crams one in his mouth. I lunge at him, but he takes off in the other direction, a second cookie in his fist. He is wild, running free. No one thinks to grab him—he’s feral, knocking boxes from shelves, screaming.
If it were just him, he’d eventually run out of steam, stand still long enough for me to catch hold of an arm, but each kid he runs past catches whatever bug he has. Their eyes widen, they growl, they go to the nearest shelf and sweep its contents to the floor. They ram their carts into adult shins. While we hobble, they tear open boxes of cookies, sugary cereal, cram handfuls into their mouths. The biggest release the smallest from their belted seats. One little girl rips her dress off, runs through the store in sandals and underwear. A toddler tears off his diaper, throws wet paper fluff at a passing grandmother.
At first, we parents try to restrain our kids, but they kick, hit, bite, and claw their way free. We put our hands up, back away. The retirees step forward, squat in front of children, say, “We don’t hit,” then get smacked in the face, punched in the nose, walloped in the eye. They too stand, back away.
As the adults cluster in a group and move toward the front doors, I watch two kids pull a five pound bag of sugar from a shelf, tear it open, eat it by the handful. A redhead toddler splits a cake mix open, pours it near a group of crawlers who can’t reach the shelves. They hoover it up, their faces covered in chocolate dust.
Adults look in all directions, kids lash out at us with every step, but we make our way to the front of the store. The last I see of Ethan before exiting, he’s eating a Hershey bar, paper and all. His shirt is gone, hair slicked back with what looks like syrup. He stares right through me.
Outside, we peer in the windows, watch as our kids run across the tops of shelves, spray cans of soda in the air, dance naked on checkout counters.
“We need to get reinforcements,” one mom says.
“Armor,” another says. “We can protect ourselves, fight back.”
“They still nap, don’t they?” a grandmother asks. “We’ll wait until they wear themselves out and scoop them up one by one.”
“At noon,” another mom says.
“Noon,” others murmur.
The universal naptime. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Someone says, “We wait.”
They push their noses against the glass, watch as two kids swing from aisle signs, another group shreds paper bags into confetti, and still more lap at open sodas like dogs.
“We don’t nap,” I say, and everyone turns to me. I can see their faces harden, then shut down. I wonder how far I can run before they turn on me.
Laura Leigh Morris is the author of The Stone Catchers (UP Kentucky, forthcoming) and Jaws of Life (West Virginia UP, 2018). She teaches creative writing and literature at Furman University in Greenville, SC.